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USC biologist plays the shell game

by Amber Dance
Tuma with tortoise
Michael Tuma uses computer mapping to predict where threatened desert tortoises live. (Photo/Courtesy of Michael Tuma)

The Mojave desert tortoise can withstand as little as 2 inches of rain per year and temperatures in excess of 140 degrees, but human activity in their habitat has them listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Enter USC graduate student Michael Tuma, who wants to ensure that tortoises have the space they need.

Tuma, a doctoral candidate at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, combines his knowledge of tortoise biology with customized computer software to predict where tortoises reside — and what will happen if they’re disturbed.

Mojave desert tortoises range through California, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. As people develop the deserts, the resulting new cattle fields, solar power plants and other buildings put the squeeze on tortoises. While tortoises’ exact numbers are uncertain, experts estimate some populations have declined by 90 percent or more. As part of his work at SWCA Environmental Consultants in Pasadena, Calif., Tuma helps clients minimize harm to tortoises when they develop the land.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to predict where tortoises can be found. For example, when BrightSource Energy selected a site in the Mojave Desert for a new solar plant, initial surveys identified 17 tortoises in the area. But that count was taken during dry periods when the tortoises were hiding underground. During construction, many more tortoises were discovered. BrightSource had to pause construction at part of the site when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ordered the company to relocate the tortoises, a move that made national news.

The BLM has frequently found itself in this position — reacting to tortoise populations as they’re discovered, instead of knowing where they are ahead of time. In 2008, the bureau invited scientists to apply for a project to predict how tortoises might respond to habitat invasions like solar development. Tuma won the job, developing a computer model of tortoise populations.

Tuma collected data from satellite maps and photos, weather records and other sources to understand two tortoise habitats: the Superior-Cronese desert habitat near Barstow, Calif., and a region including Gold Butte and the Pakoon Basin in Arizona. He also spent a year tracking tortoises in the field.

The resulting map showed areas of high tortoise density, as well as regions unlikely to contain tortoises. Using this data, Tuma could figure out the “rules” for where tortoises go. Then he was able to predict how those tortoise populations would change if the situation changed, for example, if a solar plant or cattle ranch moved in.

Tuma’s computer model also allows him to simulate how tortoises will respond to various events, such as degraded habitats or predators attracted by humans’ trash.

“It’s essentially a big calculator,” he said.

From these simulations, he can predict how to conserve tortoises. “It’s really important to protect large areas of habitat,” he said. That means solar energy providers and others should probably build close to towns, not on untouched lands.

If developers must use tortoise-populated land, then transporting the tortoises elsewhere can work. However, Tuma noted, it’s important to do this outside of drought years. Transplanted tortoises are vulnerable before they find burrows, and predators go after them when water and other food is scarce.


Mojave desert tortoise tidbits

Scientific name

Gopherus agassizii

Habitat

It’s the only tortoise that can survive in deserts that receive as little as 50 millimeters of rain each year. Tortoises keep cool in underground burrows.

Size

About a foot long; males are bigger than females.

Life span

It’s not certain, but they could live to 80 years or so.

Diet

Grass, leaves and flowers. They mainly eat fresh wildflowers, which means they only feast in spring.

Early eating habits

Like many plant-munching reptiles, baby tortoises eat the feces of adults to acquire the intestinal bacteria they need to digest vegetation.

Water management

Tortoises seek out low places where water collects and often return to the same spot when it’s going to rain. It might be a hollow in a rock or, in one instance, a crushed Coke can where a hatchling was seen waiting.

They only get a drink when it showers and can survive for a year or more without a sip. They can hold about a quart of water in reserve in their large bladders, like camels store water in their humps, and don’t expel it until their next drink. Over time, biological waste products build up in that water reservoir. The concentrated waste would kill a person, but tortoises can handle it.

If you see a tortoise, don’t pick it up — it might empty its bladder in defense and be unable to survive to the next rainfall.

Fighting

Males fight over access to females’ territory. They use an extension of their lower shell, called a gular horn, to flip each other over.


Who’s Michael Tuma?

USC home

USC Department of Human and Evolutionary Biology

Professional life

At SWCA Environmental Consultants, Tuma helps clients comply with endangered species protection laws.

In his words

“I’m attracted to critters that are different in form than us. There’s something very magical about tortoises. They look old and ancient in their faces.”

Pets

Tuma’s interest in weird creatures was sparked by a toad his father brought home when Tuma was 5. He now has about 30 turtles and tortoises, 10 snakes, a few lizards and a couple of cats.

 

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